Putting brakes on driving distractions

Safety council suggests voluntary guidelines to carmakers to make roads safer

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Maybe someday the government will require automakers to develop technology that automatically updates the Facebook status of drivers who are killed in crashes while checking their Facebook pages.

But for now, faced with an array of new on-board gadgets that threaten to worsen the deadly problem of distracted driving, transportation officials are proposing voluntary guidelines rather than rules for making the roads safer.

"As technology evolves, cell phones aren't the only distraction available in vehicles," U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said in a Thursday conference call with reporters. More and more vehicles have navigation systems, and carmakers are rolling out vehicles with built-in ability to search the Internet and surf social media.

Super Bowl viewers may recall a Chevy Cruze commercial with a young man driving home from a date, checking Facebook and hearing that the objet de son affection has proclaimed it the "best first date ever."

That system, because it is activated by voice commands and delivers audio responses, complies with the new guidelines issued by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. If the young man drives off the road from sheer euphoria, it won't be Detroit's fault.

The guidelines, the first of their kind to be issued by NHTSA, ask automakers to make devices that can be operated while keeping at least one hand on the wheel at all times, not looking away from the road for longer than two seconds at a time and without having unnecessary visual information within the driver's field of view.

They also recommend that cars automatically disable any devices that require the driver's visual or manual input to access the Internet, dial a phone number, enter an address to a GPS system, send or receive texts or browse social media, unless the car is stopped and shifted into park.

"We recognize that vehicle manufacturers want to build vehicles with the tools and conveniences expected by today's drivers," said David Strickland, NHTSA administrator.

Mr. LaHood said it is possible to have the new gadgetry in vehicles and still keep drivers safe.

He brushed aside a suggestion that issuing proposed guidelines rather than regulations was a weakening of his advocacy against distracted driving.

"We started this campaign three years ago when nobody was talking about distracted driving," he said. "Nobody has been stronger on this than I have."

He said distracted driving was a factor in more than 3,000 crash deaths in 2010.

Mr. Strickland said the guidelines were developed after "countless" meetings with automakers, safety advocates, academics and others. The public will have 60 days to make comments, and public hearings will be held in Los Angeles, Chicago and Washington, D.C., next month.

The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, representing 12 automakers who sell vehicles in the U.S., including Ford, GM and Chrysler, released a statement saying the government acknowledged that it drew heavily from guidelines already promulgated by the industry over the past decade.

"It's always nice to start your day with a shout-out from the federal government for good work. Ten years of work on our driver focus guidelines have resulted in NHTSA using them as the foundation for the government's program," alliance vice president Gloria Bergquist said.

"Consumers expect to have access to new technology, so integrating and adapting this technology to enable safe driving is the solution," the alliance said. "Drivers are going to have conversations, listen to music and read maps while driving, and automakers are helping them do this more safely with integrated hands-free systems that help drivers focus on the road."

Jon Schmitz: jschmitz@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1868. Visit the PG's transportation blog, The Roundabout, at www.post-gazette.com/roundabout . Twitter: @pgtraffic.


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